Review of “When the Ground is Hard” by Malla Nunn

This 2019 winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for young-adult literature is set in 1960s Swaziland [officially renamed in 2018 to the Kingdom of eSwatini]. Adele Joubert, 16, attends the Keziah Christian Academy, a school for mixed-race students the author based on one attended by her mother, aunt, and grandmother, and which the author herself attended before emigrating to Australia when she was fourteen.

The world of Keziah is a microcosm of the country itself, rigidly divided by color (and gradations of color), wealth, and social status. In an interview, the author explained:

“I needed to write about what was actually important in our experience. . . . The caste system, for people like me who were multiracial, was microclassified.”

You had to find your own way, she clarified in the interview, by importing whatever powers you could.:

“Those with money were considered a cut above and given fawning respect while poverty was treated as a self-inflicted injury. Light skin was preferable to dark skin. The laws made that clear. But even then, being a light-skinned biracial person meant that you were second best when compared to the white ruling class.”

In the novel, Adele lamented that white people, classified as “European,” were “the kings and queens of everything.” Her mother told her to be grateful for the European genes in her that gave her curly but not kinked hair, and green eyes. Indeed, these traits helped confer social status on Adele.

Adele’s father, who was a white engineer, lived with his white family in Johannesburg. He did call Adele and her mother every week however, and visited them occasionally. He also provided the money for Adele to attend Keziah.

Location of eSwatini within Africa

Adele had a best friend at Keziah, Delia, who was one of the “pretties,” the most popular girls. Popular girls even had a cadre of “pets” – younger female students who admired them and catered to them. But this year, Adele found that Delia was no longer interested in her; her place in Delia’s circle was taken by Sandi Cardoza, a new student from a wealthy family whose parents were married, which granted her higher status than other girls, certainly more than Adele. Adele also learned she would no longer be rooming with Delia; rather, she would be thrown in with Lottie Diamond, a “reject” who was half-Jewish, quarter-Scottish, and the rest pure Zulu, and who was from an impoverished background. Lottie had worn-out shoes, a faded school uniform, and actually spoke her mind instead of saying only what was expected. Adele felt humiliated and furious to have been dumped, and to be stuck with “a girl from the bush.”

Adele could not complain, however; the system was set, and the administrators were harsh and punitive. Complaints or infractions earned the girls unpleasant work details and/or physical punishments. Students reflected the system by engaging in physical fights of their own to settle insults.

Adele had some solace; her father gave her a [used, of course] book to take with her to school: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. She started reading the book, and Lottie did too – at first surreptitiously, and then, after Adele found out, they started to read it together, alternating reading it aloud to each another. In this way, as well as in their shared status as rejects and victims of vicious gossip and nasty pranks, they began to bond. A fire and a death at the school cemented their relationship further.

Adele learned much more from living with Lottie than she did from lessons or from anyone else at the Keziah Academy. Lottie never compromised herself and her integrity in order to be accepted; acceptance was never really an option for her in any event. Adele, having internalized what society taught her was most valuable, faced great hurdles in overcoming her beliefs about race and class, and to behaving in a way that she knew in her heart was both more honest, and morally superior to how she had lived before.

Evaluation: This excellent and moving story has so much to offer in terms of a view into other societies and other ways of understanding the world. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2019

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1 Response to Review of “When the Ground is Hard” by Malla Nunn

  1. I loved this a lot! I was disappointed in its portrayal of disability, but apart from that it felt like such a wonderful, classic boarding school novel. I’d be so delighted if Malla Nunn wrote more YA!

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